Wednesday, 25 September 2013


Lost in (Greetings) Translation

Last week I was in Singapore giving a talk organised by a German bank to an audience of mainly Asian women. Though I was 7,000 miles from home, and seven hours ahead of myself, I felt weirdly comfortable. Big banks are reassuringly like McDonald’s: they are the same the world over. Everyone speaks English, all the women wear the same Diane von Furstenberg dresses and carry the same fancy handbags.
Yet in the middle of the sameness, there is one thing that refuses to go global: how people greet each other. Over and over again last week I found myself at a loss. Ought I to kiss the American woman at whose house I had just eaten dinner? I made a lunge for her cheek, just as she was stepping backwards with a smile and a friendly goodnight.

I read the above  in the Financial Times today "Do we hug? Kiss? Shake hands? Bow? We need to be told" and was surprised at the thought that greeting someone in a social/working environment was an issue. Will it be because as Latin Americans we may be very inclined to throwing ourselves to the arms and the cheeks of anybody who stands in front of us with a smile and a Hello? We Peruvians have gone through all sorts of problems with terrorism and delinquency but, in spite of the understandable luck of trust, we still kiss people in the cheek when we meet no matter what the occasion –job or gathering- is. I am very interested in cultural issues and Lucy Kellaway is one of my favourite columnists so I went on reading:

Still trickier was deciding how to greet a group consisting of an Indian woman, a Chinese man and an Australian woman. All four of us hopped from one foot to another uncertainly, opting eventually for no greeting at all.
This sort of thing has always been a problem but it is getting worse. In the old days, the principle was when-in-Rome. So when actually in Rome you kissed on both cheeks anyone you knew reasonably well. In Holland, it was three cheeks. In Russia you might expect a crushing bear hug, in Japan a nod and in India hands clasped and a namaste. In the US and Germany you could look forward to a bonecrusher of a handshake, in the Middle East something more like a limp fish.
Global business has made matters more complicated. We no longer know whose culture trumps whose. Is it the host country’s? Is it the majority in the room? As no one seems to know, what tends to happen is a general confusing, embarrassing free-for-all. We live in a permanent state of hello hell.
I couldn´t believe my eyes! Saying hello has become  “a permanent state of hello hell” at this global business level!
Some time ago I tutored a video conference course: Global Understanding Seminar where different topics were discussed by university students of different countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, etc. However, none of the topics and - from what I recall- none of the tutors or course directors ever thought of having a session on Greetings. How interesting!

The article goes on:
Now an even more unwelcome form of greeting has arrived: the hug. This is how young Anglo-Saxons routinely greet each other outside work, but now they have started doing it in the office too. The hug represents far too much touching for my liking, but is also devilishly hard to get right: there is the full hug, the side hug, and the hug accompanied by a slap on the back.

How unfortunate! We like hugs and as  Peruvians I suppose there is nothing wrong with bear hugs, apparently, at business levels hugging is unconceivable.
Near the end of the article, Lucy suggests…

As the market has failed to find a solution, the only answer is some kind of regulation. There is a desperate need for a Global Greetings Protocol, an agreement that all companies and nations would be encouraged to sign up to that would establish firm rules for everyone to follow.
The GGP would be beautifully simple and go something like this: “In a business context the only permissible greeting is a handshake. The shake must be medium-firm and medium-brief. It does not apply to a) colleagues who see each other frequently and b) groups of more than six people, as shaking would take too long.”

 I suppose businessmen  or top executives, especially male, are ok with this but something inside me tells me that if a Global Greetings Protocol is needed, we still need to go a long way in our pursue of understanding other cultures.
The end of the article reads

Not only would embarrassment be brought to an end, the brain would then be free to do what it is good at: concentrate on those first impressions that matter so much in business, without having to worry about hands, arms, heads, lips and cheeks.
If greeting a business colleague has turned into such an issue that one of my favourite  columnists of the Financial Times devotes a whole page to describe her despair, something must be done about it. We, educators, may have to rethink the topics of cross-cultural syllabi in our institutions and start familiarizing students with the different kinds of greetings and how important it would be to limit themselves to a handshake whenever they need to greet business partners . Invited to dinner? Do your homework and find out how the average people greet in the place you are visiting so as not to  embarrass yourself or hurt any deep feelings.
You can read the original article  here


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